So much ink has been spilled on the subject of Israel's housing shortage that sometimes it seems there's nothing to add. But along with the grandiose statements and "super-tanker" proposals of the prime minister and finance minister, on the one hand, and the cris de couer of hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets, on the other, it is important to understand that building tens of thousands of new apartments a year is not the only solution to the shortage. The answer must also entail focused and precise treatment of regulatory failings that currently exist in Israeli law.
In cities across the country, there are thousands of residential buildings that stand empty and utterly neglected today, and have been designated "unfit for occupancy." Or, in simpler terms, "abandoned houses."
At issue are buildings that for one reason or another are not occupied, and whose owners are doing nothing to fix them up and repopulate them, a problem described by Noam Dvir in an article, "End the lack of occupation," published November 3. There are many reasons for this: Sometimes it is a disagreement between multiple owners of the building about what to do with it; sometimes the property owner is waiting for a new master plan for the neighborhood to go through, or is pressuring the authorities for permission to increase the size of the building he intends to put up in place of the one he will tear down. But the bottom line is the same: The land is not being effectively utilized, which reduces the number of apartments available on the market, and this creates both an aesthetic eyesore and a safety hazard in the heart of residential neighborhoods.
Common sense dictates that the state - the government, the Knesset and also the municipalities - should fight this phenomenon, but almost the opposite is true. At present, Israeli law grants a complete exemption from arnona (municipal property taxes ), for an unlimited time, on buildings that have been designated "unfit for occupancy." In other words, the building's owner is under no pressure to refurbish and repopulate it. There have even been cases in which owners have destroyed sanitary fixtures in their buildings so as to render them technically "unfit," and therefore eligible for the exemption.
This past year the Abandoned House Hunters team, a group of social activists from the Hitorerut Beyerushalayim (Awakening in Jerusalem ) political movement has been seeking solutions to the abandoned-building phenomenon in the capital. In our work on this matter, together with the municipality and vis-a-vis the government, we have come up with many ways of contending with the phenomenon, including one that we believe would be particularly effective: canceling that same unlimited arnona exemption. This specific subject made headlines during last summer's social protests, and came to the attention of the Trajtenberg Committee. To our great satisfaction, the committee chose to address the problem, and in its final report, recommended that the law be amended such that the exemption from arnona payments on a building that is unfit for occupancy not exceed nine months, or 13 months in exceptional cases, with the owner being taxed double once the exemption period expires.
Now we must pressure government members to approve this recommendation (they are scheduled to vote on the matter on November 27 ), which would in turn give municipalities a primary and necessary tool for eradicating this phenomenon. We may be talking about a first step, which must be joined by many other vigorous actions by municipalities against the owners of abandoned buildings, but experience gained throughout the world in dealing with similar phenomena indicates that when a country truly wants to handle the problem, and make thousands of existing apartments usable for housing within a short period of time, it is certainly possible.
Yuval Admon is a member of the Hitorerut Beyerushalyim movement's Abandoned House Hunters team.
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